Permaculture Vs. Agriculture: How Do They Differ?

permaculture vs conventional agriculture

Agriculture is a massive part of our lives. It is the bookmark for civilization to settle in one location and develop cities. Permaculture is a type of agriculture. In fact, it stands for ‘permanent agriculture.’ So, do you want to find out how they differ?

Agriculture is the practice of cultivating food for human consumption. Permaculture is “permanent agriculture” and integrates ecosystem patterns to improve the ethics and sustainability of farming practices. Depending on the scale, certain agricultural practices have environmental implications.

Permaculture and Agriculture are closely knitted but entirely unique in their design, objective, and environmental implications. Let’s unpack what each means and how they differ.

Agriculture Is A Practice. Permaculture Is A Design

Agriculture is something that domains various scales of farming practices and techniques. Agriculture occurs at multiple scales, from small subsistence farming all the way to humungous conventional farms.

Permaculture is a leg of agriculture that focuses on specific principles and ethics. Let’s start this journey by defining what Permaculture and Agriculture actually are.

What Is Agricultural Practice?

Agriculture is the practice of cultivating livestock and plants that have kept our global civilization fed since the beginning of time. Historically, the ability to domesticate animals and grow a surplus of food in one area allowed human society to settle and develop community spaces.

What Is Permaculture Design?

The term “permaculture” is formed by combining the words “agricultural” and “permanent.” Permaculture is more of a tool than a practice. According to this idea, everything is designed to be a part of a more extensive system that requires minimal human input.

It’s a perspective to design things that produce low carbon with a high productivity rate. These energy-efficient designs, primarily based on ecology and science, create reiterations of natural patterns. The goal is to ensure that all agricultural methods are as natural as feasible, and long-lasting as possible.

There are 12 design principles based on three ethical principles: Fair Share, Earth Care, and People Care. These ethics are based on a collective worldview of what the world needs to survive, thrive, and progress. These ethics resulted in 12 design principles to help people integrate them into their life and their workspaces.

How Are Agriculture And Permaculture Similar?

One of the founding farmers of the Permaculture philosophy, David Holmgren, had once explained the relationship between Agriculture and Permaculture in a lovely way, “Traditional agriculture was labor-intensive, industrial agriculture is energy-intensive, and permaculture-designed systems are information and design intensive.”

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How The Structure Of Agriculture Differs From Permaculture

As we’ve established now, Agriculture is the umbrella term to refer to all farming practices that cultivate livestock and plants to feed our global population. While Permaculture is a type of agricultural practice that uses 12 design principles to produce the desired agricultural space.

Agriculture Is Made up Of Two Types Of Farming Practices

Agriculture can be broken down into two categories: Commerical and Subsistence agriculture. The essential difference between these two categories is that the objective of commercial agriculture is to generate profit. Subsistence farming is basically a farm that can feed a family to survive.

The type of agricultural practice for a region is greatly determined by the geolocation and the country’s developmental status. For example, it is more common to find subsistence agriculture developing countries that grow food for their families and sell the surplus in local markets.

On the other hand, in developed countries like North America, only a tiny percentage are farmers. They use industrial agriculture like monoculture to grow enough food to feed the population with a comfortable surplus. This type of industrial farming is the most popular means of obtaining the food needed to provide the world; however, it comes with huge implications.

There Are 12 Principles In Designing Permaculture Spaces

If you think about it, agriculture doesn’t really have many rules to abide too. Farmers have the primary objective of growing as much food as possible in the shortest time at the lowest cost. For Permaculture, 12 principles can be incorporated into the farming practice and our way of life to reestablish a healthy relationship with the ecosystem.

Both Australian researchers and farmers, Bill Morrison and David Holmgren are credited for compiling ideas for living and farming based on a set of Permaculture principles. Most of these principles are more philosophical, rather than instruction, but apply them correctly, and you’ll yield success

There are the 12 design principles:

1.     Observe And Interact

People are fascinating characters; they constantly propel forward because they think it is the way to success. One must find balance and take the occasional step back to observe the conditions that surround us. You may have overlooked something crucial or come to a realization that could help you improve your work practice.

2.     Catch And Store Energy

Everything about this planet is about energy. People of all professions have been studying techniques that can harvest natural power to improve the human condition. Permaculture is devoted to developing sustainable means to catch and store natural energy.

The potential benefits of such inventions can aid our planet on the road to recovery. For example, with the creation of solar panels, dedicated scientists have been finding ways to apply this in different spaces to reduce the impact of agricultural practices as a whole.

This principle is easier to apply than it appears by simply growing food at home is capturing energy from the sun. You’re also saving energy by needing to travel and purchase particular food. It’ll be a lot healthier than produce at convenience stores.

3.     Obtain A Yield

This principle is an excellent representation of the three ethics of Permaculture philosophy. The reason for the vagueness of this principle’s intention in the title is to imply that you can obtain a yield in all aspects of your life.

Living a sustainable lifestyle based on permaculture principles can provide us with various functional and emotional benefits and the other ones mentioned in this article. It can refer to a successful yield of produce to feed your family or obtain the things that can help us live happy lives with good health.

4.     Apply Self-Regulation And Accept Feedback

This principle is interesting for it appears so simple, yet many find it so challenging. No one likes to admit when they’ve done something wrong. People are slowly starting to recognize that industrial agriculture, like monoculture, is not the way forward.

Large organizations constantly take feedback from their processes to improve the system forward. Evolution has diminished characteristics that weren’t working in nature. It is about learning from one’s actions and never making the same mistake twice. It’s okay to make mistakes; you just have to learn from them and never do it again. No pressure.

5.     Use And Value Renewable Resources And Services

This principle is very similar to the “Catch and Store Energy” principle. This principle encompasses and emphasizes the necessity to utilize all the renewable energy sources that can help recover and regenerate our environment.

People are reluctant to change, even if they know it has negative implications. For example, this impeccable dependency on finite resources like coal or fossil fuels is a road to disaster and environmental destruction.

Fortunately, not all people are so reluctant. Many advocates, industries, and countries are striving to incorporate alternative means to sustainably harness energy. This could be as simple as installing a solar panel at home or a solar wind turbine on the farm.

6.     Produce No Waste

Now, this is one of the challenging and more remarkable principles for Permaculture design. It forces you to look at everything that would be discarded in the default world as a potential element for something else. Nothing is waste till it’s wasted.

Don’t panic. It doesn’t mean you have to start hoarding your rubbish for the rest of your life. It simply implies that you should recycle and repurpose everything to the best of your abilities.

For instance, there is a lot of livestock on large-scale livestock agricultural land, which creates a lot of methane waste. Permaculture farms collect livestock waste to create natural fertilizer

7.     Design From Patterns To Details

Being able to observe and interact with the area of focus, you’ll begin recognizing patterns in nature and translate them to be applied in various aspects of one’s life. For instance, one can design a sustainable garden in the backyard based on the patterns observed at a macro and micro scale.

8.     Integrate Rather Than Segregate

Monoculture fails because it is too much of one thing and isn’t sustainable, hence the negative environmental impacts resulting from industrial agriculture. Society is stronger when it has integrated diverse people with diverse inputs, beliefs, and perceptions.

The same can be said for plants. For your farm to survive and thrive at the lowest environmental impact, you will need various companion planting to attract pollinators and deter unwanted insects.

9.     Use Small And Slow Solutions

Some people perceive change as a giant leap into the unknown. It doesn’t have to be so intense. In fact, it is sometimes the best thing to be slow and easy, with one step forward at a time.

Making big changes can be overwhelming and unsuccessful, which can demotivate someone from trying to change positively. It’s like starting a Permaculture farm; you start doing tiny tasks and getting them done correctly. Then you start expanding and growing while remaining in absolute control of the change and transformation.

10.  Use And Value Diversity

An ecosystem enriched by biodiversity will thrive. The same can be said for humankind; we will struggle to survive without diverse integration into our global community. Imagine not having any spices, just salt. How boring? Diversity is always better. We need to respect the power and importance of a diverse garden, farm, society, and world.

When you have a diverse community integrated with a diverse ecosystem, magic happens. Just as ecosystems thrive when filled with diverse plants and animals, human civilization thrives when a diverse range of people is represented.

11.  Use Edges And Value The Marginal

Permaculture definitely requires a degree of adjusting your perception and looking at every empty space, every challenge, or every opportunity with an optimistic and solution-orientated approach.

Incorporating these sustainable practices into agricultural spaces can be challenging because where does one even start? Well, it starts in an unoccupied space or that wall of a building that could become something more than just a wall. For example, unoccupied walls can become the home for vertical gardens without compromising more space.

12. Creatively Use And Respond To Change

Last but not least, this principle offers a fresh and optimistic perspective on the changes we face daily in life. Change is an unavoidable part of life. You might as well embrace it and make it work for you.  

It’s crucial to remember that Permaculture is about the future, not simply the present. This principle is about critical thinking and investigating solutions before assuming something is irreparable or just a catastrophe.

We plan for change and anticipate that things will change over time. Seasons change, attitudes shift, and our world is changing by the second. It takes a survivor to respond to these changes head-on and conquer. 

How The Permaculture Design Principles Differ From The Types Of Agricultural Practices

Not all agricultural practices are detrimental to the environment and can live coherently with some Permaculture Design Principles. Here is a table showing the differences between the Design Principles and the methods of conventional and subsistence farming:

#Permaculture Design PrincipleCommercial AgricultureSubsistence Agriculture
1Observe and InteractA considerable difference because commercial farms are usually in spaces that can be quickly cleared out to turn into agricultural space, irrespective of environmental implicationsSince it is farming for the immediate family, it requires proper planning through observation
2Catch and Store EnergyNot all commercial farms have solar or renewable energy sources to power their farms. Even though it has become more common, it is at a slow rateUnfortunately, some renewable energy sources like solar power are expensive for subsistence farmers
3Obtain a YieldThis is probably the principle that large-scale agriculture most costly relates to and is one of the greatest reasons it still dominates agricultural practice todaySubsistence farmers greatly depend on their yield to survive
4Apply self-regulation & accept feedbackIndustrial agriculture is one of the most significant contributors to global warming and environmental degradation. There is a lack of integrating feedback into their modus operandiMany subsistence farmers depend on their yield to survive, so they take close note of the practices that work and the ones that don’t and can be improved.
5Use & value renewable resources & servicesLarge-scale agriculture greatly depends on fossil fuels to keep heavy machinery operational on these large fieldsThe likelihood these farms use heavy equipment is unlikely. They are more reliant on their own abilities and the gift of renewable resources
6Produce no wasteWaste is one of the industrial agricultures most significant issues they faceThese farmers are incredibly reliant on every item they have, therefore ensure nothing is wasted
7Design from patterns to detailsThis type of agriculture typically follows the patterns of monoculture, like planting a single cropThese farms are finely planned to make the most with the space allocated
8Integrate rather than segregateWith the use of massive machines, human integration is distancing.Subsistence farming dramatically relies on the contribution of people in the area for it to operate
9Use small and slow solutionsThese farms are the opposite. They’re large and use the quickest solutionSome of these farmers don’t have the opportunity to be slow out of desperation
10Use and value diversityLarge-scale farming like monoculture is the opposite of this principleThese farmers might not prioritize diversity but instead, grow the things that will help their families survive
11Use edges & value the marginalThese farmers have a recipe of production that hasn’t changed much in the past century, so there is a sense of reluctancy of trying new thingsMany farmers don’t have the choice but to get creative and try out new practices to help obtain a successful yield
12Creatively use and respond to changeThe negative impact of these farms and the need for change has been known for years, but the intervention has been slow and smallThese farmers greatly rely on creativity to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances they are exposed to


Permaculture is a way for one to deepen their connections with the wisdom in nature by using the ecosystem and its services and integrating it into the well-being and progression of humankind. The 12 Permaculture design principles are based on three foundational ethical concepts; Fair Share, People Care, and Earth Care.

Industrial agriculture, like monoculture, is to produce the most produce at the cheapest cost, regardless of the environmental implications. In contrast, Permaculture considers all environmental implications and uses them to design its spaces.

We know now that Agriculture is the general practice of cultivating livestock and plants to make as much produce as possible at the lowest rate and quickest time. Permaculture is the tool to integrate the ecosystem and its patterns into our way of life and the way we farm our food.

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Harold Thornbro

Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Public Speaker, Teacher, Homesteading and Permaculture Enthusiast. If You're Looking For Me, You'll Find Me In The Garden.

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